Sirens

sirensThe Short Version: Novelist Joshua Mohr turns his attentions to non-fiction, specifically an account of both his years of substance abuse – and his discovery, after getting sober and having a daughter, that he has a literal hole in his heart. All before he turns 40. It’s complicated, complex, funny, and brimming with life – just like Josh.

The Review: I started this book in a warm tub with a Glencairn glass of single malt scotch, my second of that particular night. I finished it at the beginning of a month of sobriety. I’m not the only person in the world who does the dry January – but my dad does it and apparently his dad before him did it as well. My dad likes to say that he does it as a reminder that he’s not an addict – and sometimes his dry spells have gone on for two months, six months, even one time eight months. But he comes back to it, eventually: he likes a fine Scotch. So do I. But addiction runs in my family, on both sides of the genetic pair-up.

I mention this because it’s what Josh’s memoir got me thinking about. I first encountered Josh when he, out of the blue, reached out to me about reviewing his third novel, Damascus. I’d had the blog for maybe 18 months at that point and it was the first time an author had reached out and damned if it didn’t click. I loved the vital vibrant prose, the sloppy messed up characters, and the astonishing heart behind it all – and that book has stuck with me longer than a great many books I’ve read in the intervening five years.

I can’t help but think about that book a little differently now. Hell, I can’t help feeling a littler differently about the fact that I asked Josh to point me towards a Damascus-esque bar while I was in San Francisco this past summer. Part of this is because I know now some of the things that went down at Mission Bar, some of the stories that were true that found their way into Damascus, the fact that Termite Parade is an amped-up novel because of being written largely while high, and so much more. These stories, which for a while I thought were just great stories, have a basis in truth – and that knowledge alters their existence in some way. Not good, not bad; just different.

The thing that’s not different is the fact that Josh Mohr can fucking write. He manages to make extreme drug and alcohol abuse simultaneously seem horrifying, understandable, and compulsively readable. He also makes the fear of death, a real honest-to-god fear and not your average “man, it’d suck to die right now” fear, all those same things. I feel, even as I write this, that I can’t quite do it justice – because when I read those sentences back, I could see how a person might be confused and think “oh, I know plenty of authors who can do that.” But the thing is? Not like Josh, you don’t.

The marvelous thing is that this book isn’t just a recovery memoir, isn’t just a crazy-medical-thing memoir, isn’t just a writing memoir. It’s a little of everything. There’s a story of San Francisco here, a story of a body, a story of a muse. A story of fatherhood, of being someone’s son, of the way we can’t ever escape our parents no matter how we try. It’s the kind of thing that I have to imagine plenty of publishers feel confused by, not unlike Josh’s first novels. I’m damn glad for a shop like Two Dollar Radio, who not only know that there’s a place for a story like this but know how important it is that people see it and read it. Because while very few people can likely relate directly to Josh’s various predicaments throughout this book… we’ve all had a medical scare. We’ve all worried about a loved one in the grips of something they can’t control. And I’ll wager that we’ve all wondered, at one time or another, about (broadly speaking) our sobriety – maybe meaning drugs, maybe alcohol, maybe a person, maybe other compulsive behaviors. We’ve regretted things we’ve done while “not ourselves” (even if it’s all ourselves, no matter what you might try to believe), we’ve been scared and confused and shocked from growing up so fast. Josh’s tale might be a wild and wooly one, but damned if he isn’t at the same time the everyman we need these days.

Here’s one of my favorite and most interesting sentences, to conclude: “I’ve told you terrible things about myself in this book, and while I’m not a Nazi doctor, I do question my own worth.” It’s not a flashy sentence; it sounds like the sort of thing your friend might’ve said to you in the corner of a bar or coffee shop. But the fact that this is not a private conversation and, instead, a public presentation is what stops me in my tracks. I read from the opening scene (Josh having a stroke on New Year’s Eve) to that quote about the Nazi doctor in nearly a single sitting – because I felt like I was interrupting the conversation, disrespecting this person who was unburdening himself to me, by putting the book down. Maybe part of that charm is what made Josh a great bartender – but it certainly makes him a great writer.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5. I may’ve dropped the ball in missing Josh’s two most recent novels – in fact, it’s not may have; I did. But I’m reminded now to get with the fucking program, because Josh is not only one of the most delightful writers slinging words these days, but he’s the sort of author who you just want to read. This is a tough one at times, make no mistake: full of unflinching honesty and brutal moments of depravity… but it is also the kind of read that you don’t want to put down because it just flows like water from the tap. Give it a read – and then dive into his backlist. You won’t be disappointed, I assure you.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Black Wave | Raging Biblio-holism

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